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Vol. 8, No. 7
(626) 350-1500 Ext 102  

Extraordinary achievements demand extraordinary leaders.


Getting Out in Front

© 2010 William A. Cohen, PhD  

Adapted from  Heroic Leadership (Jossey – Bass, 2010)


It is claimed that General George S. Patton once said, “If you want an army to fight and risk death, you’ve got to get up there and lead it. An army is like spaghetti. You can’t push a piece of spaghetti, you’ve got to pull it.” If it weren’t for one leader pulling from out in front instead of pushing in the Gulf War, the casualties might have been ten times what they were. Yet, it was not the actions of a senior leader like General Schwarzkopf or Colin Powell, but rather, a relatively junior naval officer. Lieutenant Commander Steve Senk, was on board the U.S.S. Tripoli when it struck an Iraqi mine. Seawater rushed in and mixed with volatile helicopter fuel from ruptured tanks stored below decks. The air was thick with highly flammable and toxic paint thinner fumes. The flame from a single match would have ignited this mixture and caused instant detonation. It probably would have incinerated all aboard. This included 1,375 marines who were being transported into action.


The greatest danger was below decks where dangerous gases, both toxic and explosive, congregated. They had to be cleared, but no one was eager to enter that hellhole. Lieutenant Commander Senk did not order anyone into the increased danger. Instead, he got out in front and rushed below decks where he could immediately begin the hazardous work himself. Because he went, others followed. For four hours Senk personally led the efforts to decontaminate the space below decks. Though fatigued, he refused relief. Several times, he almost collapsed due to the fumes. In the end, he and his men succeeded in cleansing the area. The engines were re-started and the crippled ship reached port safely. Recently I was contacted by Steve Senk who had read one of my columns containing his story and volunteered to speak at any seminar I gave in the San Diego area where he lives. He is truly a great leader and practitioner of Heroic Leadership. If business leaders could motivate their employees to perform at only a small fraction of the dedication of Commander Senk and his sailors, what couldn’t their organizations accomplish? I believe they can, if they get out in front. Employees don’t follow leaders who spend all their time behind a desk. They follow leaders who get out in front where they can see and be seen. These are leaders who set the example. These are take charge leaders who aren’t afraid to mix with the people actually doing the work.


Successful Combat Commanders Get Out in Front

Confederate General Robert E. Lee exposed himself so frequently in the front lines of battle, that his soldiers were terrified that he might be killed. They promised him victory if he would just go to a more protected area. They would take up the cry, “General Lee to the rear! General Lee to the rear!” Federal General Ulysses S. Grant also was in the company of his private soldiers as much as his generals. One wrote home that with Grant as their General-in-Chief, he was so much exposed to enemy fire that soldiers were ashamed to do less or be thought a coward. But don’t let me give you the idea that successful generals got out in front only in the last century. Major General Maurice Rose commanded the 3rd Armor Division in Europe during World War II.  Many knew the 3rdArmor Division in those days, because it was this was the first division to capture a German town. General Rose was killed in action while leading his men in an attack out in front on March 30, 1945. In the Philippines in the same war, Douglas MacArthur was frequently up front with his troops in combat. As reported by one veteran newsman, he shocked one private, who spotted him. “General MacArthur,” he exclaimed, “we killed a sniper not ten minutes ago, right over there.” “Good,” responded MacArthur, “that’s what to do with them.” In the first B-52 raid in Vietnam, two generals were killed when the airplane in which they were flying collided with another. In Desert Storm, in Panama, in all wars, successful commanders try not to take what they consider to be unnecessary risks. However, at times these risks are necessary. When this is true, these senior leaders get right up front where the action is.


When on active duty, Brigadier General Harry “Heinie” Aderholt was the Dean of Air Force Air Commando leaders. He led in combat in World War II, Korea, and had nine years combat experience during the Vietnam War, including action in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. General Aderholt said: “There’s no secret about leadership. You’ve got to know your people, live with them, and be seen always out front.”[1]


Julius Caesar’s Leadership Secret

Perhaps because of Shakespeare’s immortal play, we tend to focus on the final hours in the life of Julius Caesar. We think of him primarily in his role as a politician and of his assassination. Yet, he was first and foremost a great military leader. That’s what brought him to the front rank in politics. Julius Caesar had one trait that set him part from other successful Roman generals and emperors. It was not that he wasn’t a deep thinker. He was.  However, others like the “philosopher emperor” Marcus Aureilius, were even deeper thinkers. It was not that he wasn’t a good strategist or tactician, either. Again, he was, but there were other Roman generals who were at least as good.  No, what set Caesar apart, was the fact that he spent an inordinate amount of time up front in the company of his soldiers. It was said that he committed not only the names of his officers to memory, but the names of thousands of his legionnaires . He greeted all of them by name. Because of this, Caesar’s troops knew they were not just numbers to him. They were important! Wherever the action was, and whatever happened, they knew he would be there with them to share in it with them.


There is no way of leading from the rear in combat, and there is no way of leading from the rear, in corporate life. You have to be “up front” where the action is. That way you can see what’s going right and what’s going wrong. You can make critical decisions fast without those decisions having to work there way up and down the chain of command for approval. You can see your employees, and they can see you. There is no question in anyone’s mind as to what you want done, and the fact that you are there on the spot lets people know just how committed you are to getting them done. It lets them know that you think what they are doing is important. It lets all who would follow you know that you are ready, willing, and able to share in their hardships, problems, successes and failures in working towards every goal and completing every task. Moreover, going where the action is gives you an opportunity to set the example. Remember to be a leader, you have to lead. To lead means to be out in front.


A Texas CEO Gets Out in Front with the Headhunters and Piranhas

As president of Inland Laboratories in Austin, Texas, Dr. Mark Chandler built a $100 million company with a different kind of product. Inland sells toxins, viruses, and other biochemical products to medical researchers. Once, Inland needed two rare plants to refine into a cancer medicine. Unfortunately, these plants grew only in a Brazilian rainforest hundreds of miles from civilization. Chandler couldn’t buy them anywhere. Someone had to go into the jungle and harvest the plants right from the jungle. Perhaps he could have sent employees to find this rare foliage. However, their job descriptions did not include facing piranhas, deadly snakes, and headhunters. He knew this was one trip that no one else could lead.  So, Dr. Chandler got out in front.  Mark Chandler personally organized and led an eight-day expedition up the Amazon. And this wasn’t easy. Several days into the journey, he thought he was going to die. Burning up with fever and wracked by diarrhea, he plunged into the river to cool off, forgetting about piranhas and poisonous snakes. He was so sick, he just didn’t care. Two days later, the fever broke. A little after that, with the help of native guides, he got his plants. David Nance, president of Intron Therapeutics and a customer for more than ten years said, “Mark is equally comfortable in a loincloth, lab coat, or a three-piece suit.” Do you think employees want to work for a leader like Dr. Chandler? Do you think customers want to do business with him? They know that Chandler can be counted on to be out in front where the action is. No wonder Forbes gave Inland Laboratories a price/earning multiple of 40.[2] Chandler went on to found and to serve as CEO of other successful corporations.[3]


General Wallace “Wally” Nutting retired from the Army as a four-star general, and the Commander-In-Chief of Southern Command, a major regional command. General Nutting stated that successful combat leaders set the example, that they just about always lead from the front. Moreover, that they should not only be willing to do everything they ask their followers, but more. “Once I entered a defensive minefield at night with a French sergeant to remove an injured Korean woman – a necessary act at the time, but not one I felt I should ask one of my platoons to accomplish,” he explains.[4]


Why You Must Get Out In Front to Lead

There are leaders who feel they must maintain total detachment. They believe they must coolly and carefully analyze the facts and make a decision without being influenced by outside complications. From their viewpoint, this must be done away from the action, where the noise, pressures of time, and other problems distract from their ability to think calmly and clearly.


There is a place for contemplative thinking and measured analysis in leadership. But many leaders have their priorities all wrong. The first priority is that the leader must get out where the action is; where those that are doing the actual work are making things happen. They cannot lead from behind a desk in an air-conditioned office. John Keegan is a military historian. He has written many professional books on command and strategy. In his classic treatise on the essence of military leadership, The Mask of Command, he concluded, “The first and greatest imperative of command is to be present in person.”[5]

Women Out in Front Lead in Battle and in Boardrooms

According to the Bible, Deborah was a judge of Israel. Among her duties was military advisement. Called to advise the Hebrew General Barak in the Israelites war against the Canaanites of Jabon, Deborah suggested that Barak recruit 10,000 troops and invade Jabon. According to Judges 4:8-9, Barak was not entirely convinced. “If thou wilt go with me, then I will go; but if thou will not go with me, then I will not go.” Deborah did go, and her presence up front inspired the Israelites to victory. She received full credit: “The people were oppressed in Israel, until you arose, Deborah, as the mother of Israel,” quotes the Holy Scriptures.

There are modern Debras in the boardroom as well, as the battlefield, who get out in front today. Beth Pritchard was the chief executive of the nation’s leading bath-shop chain, Bath & Body Works. Pritchard got out in front and demonstrated a special power, too. In addition to her corporate duties and responsibilities, she spent two days a month working “in the trenches,” in a Bath & Body Works boutique. She didn’t sit around observing or spend all her time handing out advice to employees. She saw and was seen; she taught and she learned. She helped set up displays, stocks shelves, and arranges gift baskets. “Though,” claims Beth Pritchard, “I’m not really good on the cash register.” Whether she was good on the cash register or not seems not to have mattered. The power of getting out in front paid off. Her cash registers were full. When she took over Bath & Body Works in 1991, it had 95 stores and sales of $20 million. Five years later, the number of stores had increased to a whopping 750, and sales hit $753 million.[6] Maybe this is why she went on to a number of other senior and top management positions in top companies.[7]


If You March To the Sound of the Guns, You’ll Be Where the Action Is.

Napoleon Bonaparte advised commanders to always march towards the sounds of the guns. This is good advice for commanders in uniform or executives in mufti. It was his way of saying, “Go where the action is.” Well-known management author Tom Peters, who himself served as an officer in the navy recommends going where the action is, too. He sees going where the action is as a management process and calls it “management by wandering about.”


How a Young Businessman Became Time Magazine’s Man-of the-Year

Does being where the action is help in the civilian world? Peter Ueberroth was still in his forties when Time Magazine named him Man-of the-Year. President Reagan invited him to the White House, and he was routinely introduced to audiences as “the man who brought honor to America.” Ueberroth didn’t win these accolades in uniform. Ueberroth wasn’t a military leader, and he didn’t win these honors on the battlefield. Ueberroth is a self-made businessman who made a great deal of money in the travel business. A head-hunting firm suggested Ueberroth’s name to a Los Angeles Committee searching for someone to run the 1984 Olympic games in Los Angeles. Ueberroth took the job at a 70% cut in pay. Later, he changed his status to volunteer worker. He refused to take any money at all for his work at the Olympics.


Some said Ueberroth declined to take a salary because there was no way the games could turn a profit. Many experts said that it was unlikely that the LA games could even break even. The media agreed. The Soviets and their satellites were likely to boycott the games in retaliation for the American boycott of the Soviet games. Other countries in the Soviet sphere of influence would follow. Other cities had had financial problems hosting the Olympics even without the Soviet problem. How could Los Angles do any better? The conventional wisdom was that the U.S. Olympic Games in Los Angeles were going to lose a lot.


His first week on the job, Ueberroth couldn’t even get into his own new office. He and members of his staff could hear the phones ringing inside. But, the landlord, like many others in Los Angeles were so certain that the Olympics would lose money and not pay its bills, that he wanted his money up front.


But as Harry Usher, who functioned as Ueberroth’s Chief of Staff said, “Leadership and inspiration are his managerial gifts.”[8] Ueberroth plunged right in. He managed by getting out in front and wandering around and going where the action was. Taking over an old helicopter hanger as headquarters, he encouraged everyone to eat lunch in the hangar’s cafeteria to save time. Ueberroth ate lunch there with everyone else. Frequently, he would stroll through the hangar talking to his employees and asking questions. “Peter is demanding and self-demanding. That makes you try as hard as you can,”[9] noted Agnes Mura, one top staffer.


Ueberroth personally negotiated contracts totaling millions of dollars. As the cash flow started in the right direction, he went out of his way to cultivate the ministers of sport from each country. Once the Soviets announced they wouldn’t be coming, Ueberroth spent even more time up front with his troops that were making things happen. He kept the pressure on and did everything he could to stop other countries from joining the Soviet boycott. He flew to Cuba and met face-to-face with Fidel Castro to try to persuade Cuba to come. While Castro said he had to follow the Soviet lead, he did agree not to pressure other Latin American countries not to come.


Once the Soviets made their boycott official, the experts again announced that there was no way Los Angeles could do anything to avoid losing money. Big money. Ueberroth ignored the naysayers and stayed in the front lines. He claimed that even without the Soviets, they would make $15 million profit. The naysayers laughed. Make $15 million profit? Impossible!


As the games opened, Ueberroth continued to go where the action was. According to Time Magazine, he was constantly on the move racing to the scene of action and even riding a helicopter over Los Angeles freeways to check the traffic. Every day, he wore the uniform of a different Olympic worker as he made the rounds. One day it was a bus drivers uniform, the next an ushers blue and gold, the day after, perhaps a cook’s whites with apron. And every time he spotted a security worker, he ran over to shake his or her hand. Ueberroth had been warned that Los Angeles was particularly vulnerable to terrorists, and Ueberroth was determined that they would not strike successfully at “his” Olympics. When the smoke cleared, Ueberroth was proven wrong. The Los Angeles Olympics didn’t make $15 million. But, the experts were wrong too. Under Peter Ueberroth, the Los Angeles Olympics made $215 million profit, $200 million more than he had predicted.


And so Ueberroth got to dine with President Reagan and his photograph graced the cover of Time Magazine. Many Americans thought he should run for president. But others said he was just very lucky. Ueberroth didn’t say very much. He accepted an appointment as Baseball Commissioner. Ueberroth continued to be lucky, because he knew his real luck was that he went where the action was.

Two Generals Set the Example by Jumping Out of An Airplane

Two four star generals showed all of us how this is done. When the C-17 air transport aircraft was accepted by the Air Force, General Ronald Fogleman enthusiastically received it. General Fogleman, who afterwards became Air Force Chief of Staff from 1995 until 1997 then wore two hats. He was Commander of Air Mobility Command (AMC) at Scott Air Force Base, near Belleville, Illinois. AMC would operate the C-17. In addition, he was Commander-in-Chief of U.S. Transportation Command, responsible for strategic logistical support by all means, land, sea, and air, around the world.


The C-17 represented a giant leap forward in air transport. It could fly further and faster and carry more weight than other Air Force strategic transports. Moreover, it could get into unimproved fields where other military jet transports like the C-141 or C-5 could not. Like the C-141, it was capable of carrying and dropping a full load of army paratroops. However, some Army officers involved in airborne operations were not happy. “Airborne operations” is what the military calls operations involving parachutists. There was a rumor that a spoiler extended to help reduce airspeed of the C-17 during airdrops would pose a hazard to paratroopers as they exited the aircraft. Sure this had been tested previously and it had worked. “But,” said these officers, “that doesn’t mean there still isn’t a potential problem.” They said the aircraft was dangerous for paratroopers, and there was talk that some troops might even refuse to jump from a C-17 because of the risk of striking the spoiler.


Shortly thereafter, an unannounced airplane landed at Edwards Air Force Base in California where the C-17 was undergoing its final tests. Two generals got out of the plane. One was Lieutenant General Henry H. Shelton, a Master Parachutist with hundreds of jumps. He probably had more jumps than any other general in the armed services. In 1997, President Clinton appointed him to be Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, after commanding the U.S. Special Operations Command. In those days, he was Commander of the Army’s 18th Airborne Corps at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina. His organization included the 82nd Airborne Division which would be the prime user of the C-17 as a jump vehicle. The other general was Ron Fogleman. He normally flew airplanes rather than jumped out of them, but he was a rated Parachutist. He had graduated from the Army’s Parachute School at Fort Benning, Georgia thirty years previously and made his required five jumps to earn his parachute wings and had gone back to parachute school to get requalified.  Both generals suited up in parachutes and received instruction about the peculiarities of jumping out of a C-17. Then, they took off in a C-17, and both jumped out of it. They termed the C-17 acceptable as an air drop vehicle. That squelched rumors about the C-17 being unsafe for jumpers. How can business leaders set the example?


This Company President Learned that Others Want to See You Do It First

Jodie Glore was President and Chief Operating Officer of Rockwell Automation, a $4.5 billion company located in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, when I spoke with him about ten years ago. Then he went on to become CEO of Iomega. In 2007 he received an award for outstanding leadership from his alma mater, West Point.[10] During the Vietnam War, he was a front line infantry company commander in the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division. Early during his tour of duty, his unit got in a fierce firefight with the enemy. One of his men who was out toward the front stood up and was instantly shot in the shoulder. Captain Glore ordered one of his men to crawl forward and bring the wounded man to back cover. No one moved. Glore looked around and instantly realized that his men were waiting to see what he would do. Without hesitation, he handed his M-16 to a non-commissioned officer crouching nearby, and crawled out and retrieved the wounded man himself. “From then on,” states Glore, “they knew I was for real. When I gave an order, they obeyed it instantly, because they knew that I was ready to do it myself. This is a lesson that has served me as well in my civilian career as it has in combat.”[11]


A Coca-Cola Manager Becomes an “Up-Front” Leader

When Julie Culwell became Manager of Editorial Services at the Coca-Cola Company, she first tried distancing herself from her subordinates. “I’d read a lot of management books that warned me not to get personally involved with my team,” she says. But things weren’t working out, so she threw these books away and became an up front leader. “We helped pull each other through professional and personal crises. We spent time together after hours. And what happened was, the more I nurtured them, the more they produced. In fact, they became passionate about their work – putting in long hours at the office and taking projects home with them. Nobody ever missed a deadline, and the feedback we got from our clients was consistently outstanding.”[12]


What we’re talking about here is not being a good guy and clapping people on the back. What we are talking about is being unafraid to being with your people, looking them in the eye, helping them when you can and listening to what they say. It is not important that they like you and think of you as a “good guy.” It is important that they respect you and think of you as a human being willing to share their victories and defeats.


This Disk Drive King is An Up-Front Leader

Alan F. Shugart was founder and CEO of Seagate Technology then the No. 1 disk drive maker. You could probably have called him the Disk Drive King. Seagate Technology in Scott’s Valley, California owned 33% of a $25 billion industry. Al Shugart was known to be gruff and hard driving. Yet, those who worked with him and for him credit his success to his leadership despite his considerable technical ability. And his technical ability was not minuscule. This was the man who developed the first disk drive for a computer at IBM way back in 1961. When he left IBM for the Memorex Corporation in 1969, he took 200 IBM engineers with him. This is especially noteworthy because these were the golden days of IBM, when “Big Blue,” was the place to be for prestige, security, and monetary rewards. James N. Porter, a market analyst who worked at Memorex then recalled, “All he had to do was raise the flag to get people to work with him.”[13]Shugart demanded hard work, and he was not a leader that avoided difficult decisions. He demoted former Vice-President Robert Martell  after he became  president of another company. He offered him a lower ranking job and convinced him to take it. Martell went to Europe to take charge of Seagate’s new European subsidiary. Within a year, he tripled sales and was back in a better position. Martell said, “I’d do almost anything Al asked me to do.”

What was Shugart’s secret? One of his vice-presidents, Stephen J. Luczo said, “He’s the most up-front guy I’ve ever worked with.”[14] After hours, Shugart held impromptu staff meetings at local bars. Since he showed up everywhere wearing short sleeves, and never wore a tie, he was always ready for these informal meetings. The most popular location at one time was a place called Malone’s. Employees called it “Building 13,” a reference to Seagate’s twelve building complex. Shugart was successful because he had mastered the art of getting out in front and staying there twenty-four hours a day. At his death in 2006, it was said of him that his career defined the industry. [15]



Commander Senk didn’t sit at his desk and ponder the decontamination job below decks on the U.S.S. Tripoli when it struck a mine. Neither did other Heroic Leaders on the battlefield or the boardroom. It’s all part of getting out in front. They all know if you want people to follow you, you must lead from the front. To do this:

  • Go Where the Action Is
  • Set the Example
  • Be Willing To Do Anything You Ask Your People To Do
  • Take Charge
  • Be an Up-Front Leader


[1] Aderholt, Harry C., letter to the author, September 7, 1993.

[2]  Mack, Toni, “Indiana Jones, Meet Mark Chandler, Forbes, (May 23, 1994) pp. 100-104.

[3] No author listed, “Biophysical Management Team,” Biophysical Website Accessed at , February 1, 2009

[4] Nutting, Wallace H., Letter to the author, September 13, 1996.

[5] Keegan, John The Mask of Command (New York: Penquin Books, 1988) p. 329.

[6] Bongiorno, Lor, “’The McDonald’s of Toiletries,’” Business Week, (August 4, 1997). Pp.79-80.

[7] No author listed, “Beth M. Prichard,”, Accessed at , February 1, 2009

[8] Ajemian, Robert, “Peter Ueberroth: Master of the Games,”  Time Magazine (January 7, 1985) in Time 1995 Almanac CR-ROM (Cambridge: Compact Publishing Co., 1995).

[9] Ibid.

[10] No author listed, “Jodie Glore Selected as 2007 Distinguished Alum,” Association of Graduates, USMA, April 2007,  Accessed at , January 29, 2009

[11] Glore, Jodie K., Telephone interview with the author, January 91998.

[12] Glasner, Connie, “Get Comfortable in Your Own Management Skin,”BizJournals, Accessed at , February 1, 2009

[13] Burrows, Peter, “The Man in the Disk Driver’s Seat,” Business Week, (March 18, 1996) p. 71.

[14] Ibid. P.72.

[15] Markoff, John, “Alan F. Shugart, 76, a Developer of Disk Drive Industry, Dies,” The New York Times, December 15, 2006, Accessed at, February 1, 2009







“Heroic Leadership:  Leading an Organization through Crisis with Honor and Integrity by Dr. Bill Cohen is relevant and timely.  He illustrates the application of many sound leadership principles, established through experience in both peace and war…in the form of universal laws, tools, and competencies …by presenting an outstanding collection of contemporary and historic examples.  Heroic Leadership   should be on the reading list and in the library of every leader and student of leadership today.”  General Peter J. Schoomaker, U.S. Army (Ret.),  former Commander-in-Chief, United States Special Operations Command and former Army Chief of Staff


“Once again Bill Cohen brings forth a “must read” manual for present and future leaders. His ability to connect the leadership traits necessary to lead in our complex society is remarkable. The virtues of leadership are highlighted and this is a must read for those who are inspired to lead. He has given a gift to future leaders and I am humbled by his work.” – Harry N. Walters, Former Assistant Secretary of the Army for Manpower and Reserve Affairs and Administrator of Veterans Affairs for President Reagan 1981-1987


“General Cohen’s book is a major contribution to the literature of successful leadership. He has clearly demonstrated through this distillation of 30 years of study and practice that the successful Heroic Leader must, first of all, be a servant to those being led. Heroism involves sacrifice of one’s own interests in favor of others. The hard decisions of leadership invariably require sacrifice of comfort, personal gain, ambition, and even one’s life so that others might survive and succeed. Heroic Leadership is a superb guide to understanding and applying this concept of leadership.” – Major General John Grinalds, USMC, Ret, former President, The Citadel


“Must read this book! It will help leaders in and out of uniform to do what needs to be done to lead their organizations to success.” –  General Thomas G. McInerney, USAF, Ret., former Air Force Assistant Vice Chief of Staff, and Chief Executive Officer, Business Executives for National Security


For more information, contact me directly by e-mail at or telephone (626) 794-5998. Yes we do give international seminars — The U.S. country code is 01.



You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership.

                                                                                        – Nelson Mandela